(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

After Babel echoes and enhances George Steiner’s previous writings about the relationships between language, literature, and culture. The reason for this preoccupation—Steiner discusses it directly in the beginning of “Word Against Object”— is the fact that Steiner is trilingual, thinking and communicating with equal facility in German, French, and English. (Another reason, discussed elsewhere but not in After Babel, is Steiner’s need as a Jew for confronting the problems which the Holocaust raises for the continuity of European culture.) The titles of an earlier work, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (1967), and of a later work, On Difficulty and Other Essays (1978), point to Steiner’s constant interrogation of language’s relation to gnosis, of the “fit” between language and thought, of the possibilities of thought beyond or between the rules of language.

Steiner’s structure of argumentation in After Babel is different from most. Most arguments either begin with complexity and variety and try to explain them by some underlying principle (inductive method) or else derive various ideas from a fundamental axiom (deductive method). Steiner’s method resembles the latter in that a single simple principle or controversy forms the basis of most of his chapters. Nevertheless, he rarely attempts to complicate his thesis or derive lemmas from it. Rather, he can be seen as using the medieval rhetorical device of amplificatio or amplification. In medieval poetics, a single theme, a description of Helen, for example, can be carried on over many pages through the use of various rhetorical devices; indeed, the theme often serves as an excuse for a rhetorical tour de force. Thus with Steiner a simple question such as “why are there so many languages?” must be continually rephrased, each part of it carefully defined with numerous examples, before the answer “because of the varieties of human situation and perception,” again subject to numerous rephrasings, can be proffered.


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